A Q&A with Shawn Phillips
By Geoff Gehman
Somewhere in amazon.comdom is someone who ranks Shawn Phillips’ 1970 LP “Second Contribution” among the all-time top pop albums, way up there with Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman.” Somewhere in Canada is someone who whistled Phillips’ tunes to make planting trees more pleasant. And somewhere in the U.S. is someone who swears that Phillips’ music eased the trauma he still feels from fighting the Viet Cong.
These are serious fans of a serious musician with serious credentials and serious chops. From the 1960s through the ’80s Phillips was an iconoclastic innovator, a wizardly warrior. He filled up intimate venues with double-necked six- and 12-string guitars. He wrote songs with stories and without choruses. He added a vibraphone to a tale about a friend struck by lightning while carrying an axe, and cut an album featuring orchestral musicians and partners of jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. He co-wrote “Season of the Witch” with Donovan, gave sitar tips to George Harrison, and received two standing ovations at the Isle of Wight festival despite being so stoned he could barely walk. With his long blonde hair, wispy beard and Texas-surfer good looks, he was a stone-cold twin of a certain Christian hero. In fact, he was seriously considered to play a certain rocking rebel in the original “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Phillips’ career was curtailed by a 1994 quadruple-bypass operation. While recovering he found another calling as a firefighter, which led to pursuing passions as an EMT and an ocean extrication specialist in South Africa, where he lives with his South African wife and their young son. He’s continued to make funky, fascinating music while saving people from fires, car accidents and drownings. His latest recording, the double-disc “Perspective,” contains everything from a hemi-powered country/rock/funk instrumental to a lovely homage to a Hawaiian singer/ukulele player nicknamed “Bruddah Iz.” He still believes that songs can’t move listeners unless they’re unpredictable. And he still writes tunes that are spicy verbal salads. “The music takes you to the edge,” he’s explained, “but the words make you jump.”
On Nov. 14 Phillips will make the Mauch Chunk Opera House jump with songs like “Early Morning Hours” and “Woman,” a one-word title for a tune with a 25-word title. The pony-tailed 71-year-old will use a looper to recreate the original recording of “Withered Roses,” which has five layers of 12-string guitar. He’ll turn himself into a 10-finger orchestra with a Line 6 James Tyler Variax, which can emulate a dozen axes, everything from a Martin Dreadnought to a Gibson Hummingbird.
“A lot of people want to see me get up there with an acoustic guitar, but I’m not just a folk singer anymore,” said Phillips in a long, lanky twang, speaking from his native Fort Worth on a cell phone with a Long Island number. “Two hours with one guitar would just bore me to death. You can’t create too many dynamics, and that’s what music is all about: the dynamics. Playing so many guitars, and making so many guitar sounds, allows me to have fun. I mean, come on, man, I’ve been doing this stuff for 50 years now; don’t I deserve to have a little fun?”
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely flayed and slayed you?
A: I would have to say “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and Johnnie Ray’s “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” My grandfather listened to Hank Williams and my grandmother listened to Tchaikovsky, so I became a musical schizophrenic. At an early age I also fell under the spell of “Malaguena,” which I first heard my mother play on a piano while I was under the piano. Man, that made me a real spacecase.
Q: One of your early writing mentors was your father Jim, who wrote spy novels under the alias Philip Atlee. What advice did he give about making words commanding?
A: Jim gave me three criteria: anger, wonder and technique. Anger is if you look at the world around you and you are satisfied with what you see, there’s probably something wrong. Wonder is being attentive to every drop of rain on every blade of grass. Technique is keeping a balance between anger and wonder.
I’m trying to tell a story in a song. A lot of my songs don’t have choruses because choruses interrupt the story. Choruses are for people who didn’t understand the song the first time around.
Q: Are there any significant new directions or twists on your latest record “Perspective,” things you did that you yearned to do for eons and/or happy accidents?
A: You hit it right on the head about happy accidents. Track No. 4 on disc one, “Funkin’ Country Rock and Roll Stew,” was a happy accident, a result of messing about with a riff off “Rumpelstiltskin’s Resolve” [Phillips’ 1976 LP]. It’s an instrumental that’s great fun to play, a really great funk tune. I have to issue a warning, though: Do not have your speakers loud when it starts because it will kill your woofers.
“Tribute,” the very last song, is a tribute to [Hawaiian entertainer] Israel Kamakawiwo [1959-1997], who did something that just burst onto the music scene about 20 years ago: he sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with a ukulele. It was something really simple yet profound. I love that piece so much that I just had to write him a tribute.
The rest of “Perspective” is me basically staying as far away as possible from the standard chord progressions that you hear everywhere on the radio. The point of all of this to make uncategorizable music that makes people enjoy themselves and think. You know that’s my thing. I want to challenge you; I want to make you run for the dictionary.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. Can you point to a song of yours that truly took on a life of its own, that maybe even became a staple at weddings, funerals and other rites of passage?
A: “All the Kings and Castles” has had quite a run. As a matter of fact, a friend of mine just asked my permission to record the words on a black screen for YouTube. It was a complete departure from a pop song, yet it won three grand prizes at the 1973 Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in Japan. I received another prize when I picked a piece of paper out of a hat and a guy said: “Ah, you’ve won a Yamaha motorcycle.” I said: “Well, I live in Italy–can they ship it to me?” They did and I drove it almost until I left Positano. Man, was it fast: the compression ratio almost scared me to death.
Q: Your bona fide fans treat your ’70s LPs, especially “Second Contribution” and “Rumpelstiltskin’s Resolve,” as soul maps of their lives. Do you know of a fan whose path you helped shape or change?
A: To tell you the truth, I can’t count the number of people who have told me that my music has improved their lives. Elton John has probably faced the same thing; so has Steve [Cat Stevens]. The difference is that I have a plethora of people with serious jobs–surgeons, police officers, judges–who are serious fans of my music. That’s what I’ve noticed most of all.
Q: The ’70s was a great decade for memorable album covers and you contributed two to the good of the order. On “Second Contribution” you look like a wizard with a guitar, your long black robe billowing on the cracked white ground. On “Rumpelstiltskin’s Resolve” you look like you’re having a merry old time in a rowdy tavern in a photographic version of a 17th-century Dutch genre painting. Do you have any colorful tales about these colorful designs?
A: The photo for “Second Contribution” was taken in a disused chalk quarry outside London, England. The art director took us out there. I was wearing the cape every day; it was part of my natural clothing. He decided that the picture taken of my back should be the front [laughs].
If you look carefully at the cover of “Rumpelstiltskin’s Resolve,” you’ll see I’m pretty much everywhere. I’m the Indian, the China man, the Spanish guy in the black. We had to be very, very careful that the camera didn’t move.
You know, the folks at A&M flipped out when the cost of that cover came in: it was well over ten grand.
Q: Hell, you saved them money by playing a half-dozen roles.
A: Exactly. Another anecdote is that the guy who did the makeup on me, Maurice Stein, also did the makeup for the original “Planet of the Apes” movies.
Q: Have you ever met a fan while serving as an EMT or a firefighter or an ocean extrication specialist?
A: When it happens it’s very low-key. I make it blatantly and absolutely clear that the side of my life as a musician does not enter the public-service side. People I’m helping understand that immediately. Although I do run into people who say “I don’t believe what you’re doing.”
I entered public service in 1994 after I was recuperating from a quadruple bypass. I saw on community television that Emergency Services needed firefighters and I thought: Well, I was a firefighter in the Navy and, besides, I’m not going anywhere. So I gave them a call and they said: Fine, you ain’t going anywhere, we’re putting a fire phone in your house. I was living outside Austin, in Briarcliff—that’s Willie [Nelson] country–and the phone would ring and I’d hear “There’s a fire out here by Gray Lake,” and it would be one of those fires where the sky glows and flows orange.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, a dark-night-of-the-soul period when you considered finding another career, another calling?
A: You know, it would have to be when I was living in Los Angeles and disco started taking over and singer-songwriters were on the way out. It was just a difficult period, but what came out of that was the realization inside me that it doesn’t matter. What mattered was to just keep doing what you’re doing. Because what you’re doing is valid and it touches and moves people.
In 1994, after my recuperation, I started working on fire trucks and after a while they sent me to fire-training academy. Eventually I was certified as an EMT by the Texas Department of Health. And that’s when I said: This is what I want to do from now on. Compared to music, this is very real. I’m dealing literally–literally—with life and death.
Around 2000 my manager said: You’ve sold more than nine million records. People love you. You can’t just sit around. And I said: Yes I can because I like what I’m doing. Well, he put together a tour of South Africa and I went over there and I met my wife. Touring South Africa was the best decision I ever made in my life because my wife is the best person in my life.
Q: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when all the planets aligned and danced?
A: One of the times was winning the Yamaha song contest. Another time was playing the Isle of Wight festival [in 1970]. Now I’m going to tell you a little story about how dark times can turn into times of light. I was not supposed to play the Isle of Wight but they had a cancelation and I was asked: Can you do a one-hour set for us? I was so stoned I could hardly walk. But I got up there and during the gig they gave me a standing ovation and at the end they gave me another standing ovation—we’re talking something like 657,000 people applauding on their feet.
Now let me explain something else. One of my first calls as an EMT was for an 84-year-old lady who had fractured a hip from stepping out of bed too hard. I took great care of her and when I handed over to the Austin paramedics, I told her: “Don’t worry, you’re going off to better hands.” This woman grabbed me by the arm and looked me in the eye and, let me tell you, at that moment the Isle of Wight and the Yamaha festival all disappeared into the distance. And I realized this is an extraordinary vocation. You really, really make a difference in peoples’ lives. I’ve done that with music but it’s more ephemeral.
Q: Do you perform, or have you performed, your co-creations with Donovan, including “Season of the Witch” and “Little Tin Soldier”?
A: I played “Season of the Witch” with him in his 45th-anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010. He acknowledged, in front of the audience, that I was co-composer. I wrote the music, he wrote the words. Not getting credit from him had been a bone of contention between us for years and years and years. Getting credit from him was important to me, because “Season” has been played by everybody and his dog.
Q: What’s on your short-term, within-reason Bucket List?
A: I’d love to sing with Bobby McFerrin and play with Yo-Yo Ma. Oh man, Yo-Yo and I would be gang busters. He’d love the song “Ascent” on “Perspective”; it would make him absolutely nuts.
Q: And what tops your Fuck It list?
A: Oh boy, you know that’s a really difficult question. I’d love to stop touring alone. I would love to have some help on the road. That would be the main one right there. When I put this phone down, I have to drive six and a half hours to San Antonio.
Now, be sure to wish all your readers health, love and clarity. You can’t have any one of those without the other two.
Q: You’ve had so many intriguing lives, and crisscrossed with so many intriguing folks, it seems to me you’d be a stone-cold natural for a documentary. The Oscar-winning documentary about Rodriguez, the Detroit musician who was forgotten in the U.S. and found in South Africa, is called “Looking for Sugarman.” You’ve never been lost, so we could call your film, say, “Surrounding Shawn Phillips.” I’m not the only one who thinks it could be narrated by Matthew McConaughey, your fellow Texan. What do you think?
A: Hey, that would be alright with me. And you’re right: it wouldn’t be a “Searching for Sugarman” kind of thing because, man, I live in South Africa; I’m not hard to find. And I like McConaughey; he’s a really fine actor.
Q: Have you seen his TV commercial for Lincoln where he’s driving around, ruminating like a rich bohemian existentialist?
A: Sounds like the commercial Miles Davis did for Honda scooters. He’s sitting on a scooter, horn in hand, looking down. The camera pans down on his face, and he looks into the camera and says: “I’m gonna tell you about it.” [Pause] “Maybe.”
Shawn Phillips: The Scoop
As a teenager he raced lawnmowers at a drive-in with a Texas high-school pal who became John Denver.
He taught guitar to a Canadian waitress named Joni Mitchell.
He sang on the chorus of the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita.”
Concert promoter Bill Graham told his manager that Phillips was “the best-kept secret in the music business” during a 1976 benefit concert for jailed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter at the Astrodome. Graham also said: “Who the fuck is this guy?”
He performed on a cruise hosted by the Moody Blues that featured acts who played the Isle of Wight festival.
The full title of his concert staple “Woman” is “She Was Waiting for Her Mother at the Station in Torino and You Know I Love You Baby but It’s Getting Too Heavy to Laugh.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Shawn Phillips’ fondness for “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.